Kenya conservation news – Park communities denounce officials


Community leaders around the Masai Mara, one of Kenya’s best known game reserves, have minced no words recently when denouncing the Narok County Council and other officials for perpetuating poverty amongst the people living near the park boundaries.

While the Kenya Wildlife Service is in charge of most of the national parks and reserves around Kenya, the Masai Mara is managed by the county council, and probably hiding behind their greater obscurity – in comparison with the public image of KWS at least – that organ seems less concerned with development and percolating benefits from tourism down to ‘the people’ than would be the case with the national body.

Said one source in Nairobi, when discussing the issue: ‘there were always arguments pro and con to move the management of the Masai Mara to KWS but domestic politics and the powers of the Narok politicians always prevented such a streamlined solution. The people living around the reserve simply don’t see anything much coming back from the council to them, in form of schools, bore holes, clinics, roads and other services. They see the tourists go in and out of the Mara in bigger numbers every year and they get frustrated. A few lodges and hotels have established ties with neighbouring communities and support them directly, raise funds even from amongst their clients. They paint class rooms, add more buildings to schools, organize health clinics, donate essential items during drought periods, assist with water and so forth but most of those reaping big with their camps inside the park don’t do that.’

True enough this matches the experience of this correspondent, last to the reserve a year ago, when interviewing at the time a number of stakeholders. Notable exception was Porini Camps / Game Watcher Safaris, which invested in long term lease of former grazing grounds now converted to wildlife conservancies, and their success in sharing the proceeds equitably with their ‘land lords’, i.e. the Masai clans who own the land adjoining the reserve, has only recently seen yet more land being converted and brought into conservancy management, closing a crucial gap between two existing conservancies.

Porini, as do other responsible conservancy management companies, employ almost all their staff from the clans in conjunction with the clan elders, train them in house and in special training institutions and pay not just ground rent but a substantial royalty for each paid bednight tourists spend in their camps. Additionally tourists also contribute to special projects directly benefitting Masai villages and homesteads, in the process creating the goodwill and support those operating inside the reserve have failed to generate.

The income from tourism into the Mara is estimated at over 3.5 billion Kenya Shillings, of which according to available data just under 20 percent go back to the communities, but this is disputed on the grounds of in-equitable distribution, favouritism and generally thought to be too little, while according to a Nairobi based source ‘council bosses get fat and rich while their people suffer’.

How far this round of protests will go is not yet clear but sustained opposition against the council over the distribution of tourism wealth could potentially flare up and affect operations, something all tourism stakeholders are aware and afraid of. Said another source from Kenya: ‘the council in Narok needs reforming, they have for the past decades blamed everything on everybody except accepting responsibility for the things they do and failed to do, mainly to serve those who elected them’.

True enough, concludes this correspondent.  

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